Today, in honor of the publication of THE WEIGHT OF LIES, I have the lovely Emily Carpenter providing a guest post on how southern gothic style became an influence in her writing. If you weren’t able to pre-order her latest book, do yourself a favor and go order it HERE! If you missed my raving review of THE WEIGHT OF LIES, you can read it HERE! For more on Emily and her books, you can visit her website HERE.
SOUTHERN GOTHIC GIRL
In 1993 I was twenty-six, living in New York City, and working at CBS television in the famous Blackrock building in Midtown. Every day felt like a competition for American Ninja Warrior, desperately trying to figure out the subways, streets, and restaurants, and navigate a city that felt like a different planet. I was also trying to avoid standing out as the Southern, vowel-drawin’ out, naïve Alabama native that I was. It was an exhilarating and exhausting time in my life.
It was during those years, that I started reading again. I read a ton as a kid, but I hadn’t read much during college – other than the required stuff. I’m not sure why, but once I got out, I never got back to it. I might pick up a LaVyrle Spencer or Fern Michaels from the bookshelves at my in-laws rented beach house, but other than that, nada. When I first got the job at CBS, my husband and I lived out in Connecticut, which meant an hour and fifty minute round-trip train ride every day. Being the pre-smart phone era, I decided to re-commit to my old habit of reading again and devised an ambitious regimen: the Brontë sisters, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, everything Mark Twain, everything Stephen King (well, almost everything). I also read every issue, back to back, of Premier Magazine and Movieline, but that’s another essay.
Then, at some point, I ran across John Berendt’s blockbuster non-fiction book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and home came a’ callin’.
I don’t remember the first time I heard about the book. All I remember was that suddenly it was everywhere. I’ll admit, initially I kind of turned my nose up at it—this quintessentially Southern Gothic book, dripping with humidity and Spanish moss, crawling with bizarre characters shooting up the mansions of Savannah and creeping through the cemeteries doing hoodoo. Yawn. I was sporting my Doc Martins and black leather motorcycle jacket and my matte cinnamon lipstick. I was NOO YAWK now. Doing my damnedest not to be, look, and sound and act so Southern.
Of course, I was being a dum-dum and eventually got smart and picked up a copy. And, of course, the book was everything people said it was – brilliant, mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind. I read it on the subway, during my lunch breaks, while I was holed up in my 32nd floor apartment with its view of the World Trade Towers and Statue of Liberty.
As I read, I was seized with homesickness. Not because the world was a replica of the South I knew – that was a more buttoned-up, religious, sedate place – but for a different, eccentric, accepting and more than slightly skewed world than I was living in. It was strange. Because of that certain indefinable thing that kind of wafts through the best Southern Gothic stories, I recognized the world of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as my own.
And, incidentally, I also recognized the style I would spend the next several decades being obsessed with.
When people ask me what kind of books I write, my standard answer is mystery/suspense with a Southern Gothic twist. Occasionally, I get a blank look, which is when I have to remind myself that Southern Gothic isn’t a term most people (who aren’t English majors or write for a living) tend to chat about over their lattes. For me, the author of the novel Soil, Jamie Kornegay, laid out a brilliant definition here.
“These are sophisticated stories shrouded in darkness and mystery, set in an old mannered South that has soured. The mansions are gray, and there’s something not right about the residents. There may be magic and illusion. There is death, most certainly, and bad behavior committed by the righteous. There is God and the Devil, standing in the muddy, snake-swarmed baptismal river, holding hands.”
Mercy, just look at that piece of writing. It just TAKES you somewhere, doesn’t it? And it’s just from a random article I ran across on the internet one time a couple of years ago. That right there? That’s the kind of atmosphere Southern Gothic literature creates. Those are the writers – those masters of that most genteel form of manipulation found south of the Mason Dixon line – that make the hair stand up on your arms. They construct stories that are part fact, part exaggeration, that reveal secrets of most grotesque and heartbreaking magnitude. Somehow, in the midst of all that, they tell a truth you can feel in your very bones.
Since Berendt’s book, I’ve read a lot more in the Southern Gothic genre—especially the old stuff like Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Erskine Caldwell—and it’s delicious. Now, I’m looking for more modern stuff…and also finding great Southern Gothic TV like the Sundance Channel show Rectify. It seems like I’m probably on a lifelong journey, looking for that moment where it’s God and the Devil…and me, standing together, hand in hand, in the middle of that muddy river.
Emily Carpenter is the bestselling author of two thrillers, Burying the Honeysuckle Girls and The Weight of Lies (June 6). After graduating from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication, she moved to New York City. She’s worked as an actor, producer, screenwriter, and behind-the-scenes soap opera assistant for the CBS shows, As the World Turns and Guiding Light. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her family. Visit Emily at emilycarpenterauthor.com and on Facebook and Twitter.